- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

LOS ANGELES Ben Affleck, People magazine's "sexiest man alive," is also a recovering comic-book geek.
Mr. Affleck can talk at length about the genre, particularly Daredevil, the sightless vigilante known as "the man without fear."
The strapping actor hopes his affection for Daredevil, a hero who fights crime with his remaining supercharged senses, will help audiences buy his first foray into comic-book action features.
The opening weekend for "Daredevil" will be more than a test of Mr. Affleck's faith in the source material; it also will be a test of Hollywood's confidence in heroes in tights. It will hardly be the last such test, however; moviegoers can expect "X2," the sequel to 2000's "X-Men," in May and "The Hulk" in June.
Mr. Affleck says Daredevil's humanity separates him from the colorfully bodysuited pack.
"He was openly religious, he had these tragic love affairs, he struggled with self … he didn't always do the right thing," Mr. Affleck says during a press gathering last month to promote a film that some parents might see as too grim for a superhero saga. "That resonated with me."
The movie, he says, does its best to mirror that spirit.
"It's a little grittier, a little more realistic … when the hero gets hit, he bleeds," he says. "There are consequences to violence. This is not a wanton, graphic, random violence."
After one slugfest, Mr. Affleck's on-screen hero lazily yanks a loose tooth from his mouth.
"Daredevil," based on the Marvel Comics superhero, introduces a blind lawyer from Hell's Kitchen who fights evil via his leather-clad alter ego. An accident took Matt Murdock's sight, but it left him with enhanced remaining senses. He uses that radarlike power, along with his martial-arts prowess, to keep the streets free of crime.
Casting the square-jawed Mr. Affleck in the title role took little imagination.
Giving inexperienced writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (1998's "Simon Birch") creative control demanded a superhero-size leap of faith.
Just ask Mr. Johnson.
The self-effacing director says he did everything but dress up in tights to persuade producers he was the only man to bring Daredevil to life.
"I sold myself as a screenwriter: 'Let me write it, and I'll prove to you I'm the guy to direct it,'" he says of his initial sales pitch.
Then he had an artist pal sketch out potential storyboards. He even cobbled together music that might fit the hero's tale.
"I said, 'Here's the script, here's the movie. Here's what it's gonna look like and sound like,'" he says.
It wasn't enough so one day he barged into one of the producer's offices and demanded a face-to-face meeting.
Four hours later, he got one.
"I just went off for 30 minutes straight [about] how much I loved it and why it was a mistake" not to hire me, he says. "That's what it took."
Once he had the assignment, he faced some tough decisions.
"You want to stay as true as you can to the comic book, and at the same time you've got to make the movie for the mass audience who have never heard of Daredevil," he says. "That's the juggling act."
What looks good on film isn't always the same as what works on the page. He is ready to be hammered by some fans for the changes he wrought.
"You get killed on costume no matter what you do … Elektra not being in red, Daredevil not being in tights," says Mr. Johnson, who kept tabs of fans' reactions by eavesdropping in online chat rooms.
In Mr. Affleck, the director says he found a fellow Daredevil enthusiast who actually looked as if he had walked off the comic-book page.
That helped, because Daredevil carries the bulk of the screen time.
"With the 'Batman' movies, you spend all your time with the villains. This movie doesn't. You spend your time with Matt Murdock," Mr. Johnson says. Still, the character of Bullseye, a villain given nefarious life by Colin Farrell, threatens to steal the film.
Besides, Mr. Affleck was willing to risk his budding reputation as a leading man to act out a childhood fantasy in front of millions. "The chance of looking silly is huge, and I don't have a great track record," Mr. Johnson says.
Mr. Johnson's "Simon Birch" also dealt with a handicapped hero.
"I love underdog stories, and [Daredevil] was the ultimate underdog to me," he says. "I dug that he couldn't fly or he didn't have mutant healing. It's not heroic if you're infallible. I never had to worry about Superman. I worried about Daredevil."
Avi Arad, "Daredevil" producer and president of Marvel Studios, calls Daredevil "one of the more cinematically drawn comics."
That's a tribute to some of the distinguished talent who contributed to the comic series through the years. Industry legend Frank Miller's 1980s work on Daredevil is regarded by many as the series' high-water mark. Mr. Miller's contributions to the Batman series proved influential to how director Tim Burton envisioned that hero for "Batman" and "Batman Returns."
Mr. Arad says Daredevil typifies the textured characters created by Marvel Comic's founder, Stan Lee.
"What Marvel always managed to do was deal with the angst of the personalities," he says. "Spider-Man was a picked-upon teen, the Fantastic Four squabbled, the Hulk had his anger issues."
Still, the Daredevil character doesn't have anywhere near the name recognition of Marvel's other stars, such as Spider-Man and Captain America.
Mr. Johnson found that out during the film's shoot.
"Spider-Man is an icon. Everybody knows who he is. Nobody knows who Daredevil is. Everybody thought I was working on the Evel Knievel movie," he says, laughing.

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